Linda Chavez

A plan to allow some young people to serve in the U.S. military even if their parents brought them to America illegally as young children may be the opening some Republicans need to support at least limited immigration reform. The so-called ENLIST Act would grant to undocumented young immigrants the right to join the U.S. military and be eligible for citizenship after four years.

But the measure already suffered one defeat when its sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., tried to add it as an amendment this week to a must-pass defense policy bill. Still, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., both have said they don't have a problem with the principle of allowing so-called "DREAMers" to serve in the military and earn an expedited path to citizenship.

It's easy to see why the GOP leaders are open to the idea. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the U.S. military, and only 13 percent of those living now have ever served. What was once a duty (as well as a rite of passage) for American men has become the exception. With the end of the draft in 1973, fewer young men enlisted, and though the ranks of the military have been bolstered by the enlistment of women, who make up almost 20 percent of the military now, too few Americans choose to serve their country.

But there are thousands of young men and women who want to serve but can't because they came here illegally, often as very young children or even infants. They were raised and educated in the U.S. and now want to pay back the country they love by risking their lives to defend it. But current law only allows those who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents to serve -- with one important exception. A provision of law known as the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program allows the Pentagon to take other recruits deemed crucial. The administration is currently considering whether to invoke this provision to give DREAMers the right to enlist.

Unfortunately, the latter alternative might be a pyrrhic victory for immigration reform advocates. One of the chief objections of GOP opponents to reform legislation is that they don't trust the Obama administration to enforce the laws as written. Certainly the GOP-generated delays in getting immigration reform passed have frustrated those who want to see some resolution to our current immigration morass, but using executive authority may ultimately undermine the impetus to enact more comprehensive reform. If Republicans feel the president will simply do what he wants on this issue -- and whatever he thinks is politically expedient -- they will be far less likely to consider legislation.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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